Musicians are better at separating out one meaningful audio stream from a combination, a skill that could help decipher a single conversation in a crowd. Christopher Intagliata reports.
The 2016 presidential candidates have subjected voters nationwide to a cognitive challenge: can you untangle what one candidate is saying while the others talk over him? [Political debate clip of Trump, Rubio, Cruz talking over one another] That challenge is a test of something called the cocktail party problem, or "speech-on-speech perception." Which researchers in The Netherlands recently investigated, with a group of 18 musicians and 20 nonmusicians—to see if musicians are any better at it.
The scientists played the study subjects a sample of one speaker masking another—for example, try to follow what the second speaker is saying: <<English speech sample>> Except they used Dutch samples. <<Dutch speech sample>> Anyway, the participants listened to this multi-voice babble with headphones, then attempted to repeat the target sentence, to see how many words they could make out. And it turns out musicians scored significantly higher than non-musicians did in deciphering the target phrase. The study is in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. [Deniz Başkent and Etienne Gaudrain, Musician advantage for speech-on-speech perception]
Turns out musicians might be better at something called "stream segregation"—separating out one meaningful audio stream among others. "And this is the case indeed for musicians when they want to listen to hear out one specific instrument, within a group of instruments." Etienne Gaudrain, a hearing scientist at University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands. His co-author, Deniz Başkent agreed. "Anecdotally, when I speak to my musician friends, they do indeed mention situations like this, that they say they can switch their attention easily to either hear one stream, like from an orchestra piece or a band, or they can also combine patterns. So this requires quite a lot of cognitive control to be able to hear one stream or two streams together or to hear all of them together, but we think they are very well trained in this kind of skill.”
It's unclear whether this ability helps the candidates much. Neither Mike Huckabee, who plays bass in the band "Capitol Offense," nor Martin O'Malley, who strums and croons in "O'Malley's March," made it far enough to really exercise their ears.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]